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Monday, May 29, 2017


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3 Steps to Developing Successful Membership Categories

Many associations struggle under the burden of legacy programs and services; these are usually member benefits designed to serve members in a business or professional environment that no longer exists.

An essential strategic task of association executives is to continually review the membership benefits and update them to match the changing needs of members in the current environment.

This three-part strategy blog outlines some of the key steps in this process:

  1. Investigate member needs to identify potential solutions.
  2. Prioritize the solutions to identify the most essential benefits.
  3. Configure and price the essential benefits for success in the market.

Phase 1: Investigating Member Needs

Member needs change because the world within which they operate changes.

From economic challenges to changes in government policy, a dynamic environment forces members to identify new solutions and adapt to their changing circumstances.

The market within which member companies or individual professionals operate is dynamic. It is this dynamism that creates changes in the problems members face, and thus the needs of members change dynamically.

For example, in 2005, the most important challenge facing Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE) members was industry consolidation, but in 2013, this was replaced by global economic uncertainty. The #1 concern in 2005 dropped to #5 by 2013. Consider for a moment how the strategy of STLE changes when staff and volunteer leaders address economic uncertainty on a global scale instead of industry consolidation.

Determining member needs requires an investigative step and this is most successful when approached with an open-minded methodology for identifying and understanding the forces with the greatest impact on members.Working with associations since 1999, Association Laboratory's research identified some of the following areas as critical to understanding membership needs:

  • Environmental scanning to identify and understand the primary business or professional forces with the greatest impact on members.
  • Competitive scanning to identify how members select competing, complementary or alternative solutions to address the challenges created by these forces.
  • Personal motivationsdriving decision making: what do the individuals involved with the association seek?
  • Organizational goals or imperatives driving decision making: what do the organizations involved with the association consider essential challenges that need to be solved?
  • Market analysis to identify how these factors are similar or different across key stakeholder groups.

At its heart, the investigative step is a creative and entrepreneurial process. It relies on qualitative insights that are discussed at depth so that different scenarios or strategic paths can be identified.

There are several well-established research techniques that help associations identify and understand the critical needs of members or other stakeholder groups:

Onsite visits - few things tell you more about a member's challenges than spending a day in their shoes. It provides context to their everyday situation. Identify 3 - 5 members representing a cross-section of your industry or profession and shadow them for a day, keeping track of their work challenges.

Executive interviews - executive interviews are in-depth, confidential discussions with a diverse group of individuals. They are designed to solicit a comprehensive opinion from an individual. This technique works particularly well with senior executives or other high profile individuals.

Online bulletin boards - An online bulletin board is a qualitative research tool designed to gather insights over the course of two to five days, and can be used instead of the traditional face-to-face focus group. Participants are asked to review a series of questions introduced by a moderator and comment on the question or the responses from other participants. If greater involvement is desired or there is a need to converse with different segments (for example, different divisions of the association or prospects vs. members), separate, simultaneous bulletin boards can be set up.

Marketing Research Online Community (MROC) - A marketing research online community is a private, invitation-only social networking group set up to meet a specific research need. MROCs can last a few weeks or a few months. These communities are ideal for obtaining qualitative information to guide decision making and deepen understanding. A moderator leads the discussion and poses questions or presents tasks for community members to complete. In addition, community members are free to discuss ideas among themselves, pose questions and seek advice from fellow members. Observers and the moderator get answers to the questions the moderator poses and also find out what issues are on participants' minds. The MROC software provides a complete transcript of all comments.

Essential to a robust understanding of members' needs is collaborative analysis. Collaborative analysis means that your researchers, staff, and key subject matter experts with industry or professional knowledge are involved from the beginning.

Collaborative analysis helps ensure that you have internal consensus on the research conclusions and are more likely to incorporate your learning into action.

At the end of the investigative step you should have identified a list of key challenges and a list of potential solutions to these challenges for testing.

The next stage is to prioritize these solutions to determine which are essential to membership vs. potential standalone products, explore the decision making context surrounding their selection, and identify similarities and differences across key audiences.

We'll discuss this step in our next blog titled Phase 2: Prioritizing Members' Needs to Identify Successful Membership Categories.

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